school segregation

University of Memphis runs the most segregated elementary school in the city. Will its middle school be more diverse?

PHOTO: Stan Carroll/The Commercial Appeal
In this 2016 photo, students play tubanos during music class at the University of Memphis Campus School. The university wants to add a middle school.

The University of Memphis is proposing to operate a middle school along with its existing elementary school while boosting student diversity in its programs.

The university’s elementary, Campus School, has the highest percentage of white students in the city, at 66 percent in 2017, and the lowest percentage of students living in poverty, 8 percent the same year. By comparison, about 8 percent of students in Shelby County Schools are white, and 59 percent live in poverty.

That especially matters in Memphis, where schools are more segregated than they were in 1971, when a judge used the racial makeup of schools to order desegregation. A growing body of research shows that segregated schools especially disadvantage students of color.

Remy Debes, a member of the middle school’s steering committee and a philosophy professor, presented the university’s plans for a new middle school to Shelby County Schools board members on Tuesday.

“My wife is Indian and we have biracial children and we have lots of concerns about the diversity inside Campus School. It’s not that it’s horrendous, but it’s not representative of Memphis,” Debes said. “So, the goal here has been from the get-go: How do we create a school that looks more like Memphis?”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
The University of Memphis campus.

But the university’s strategies to diversify its proposed middle school have not been tried at the elementary school, prompting questions from some school board members, who have the final say if the Shelby County Schools will contract with the university.

“I understand what your intent is behind the model, but it’s hard for me to understand that if that’s not currently reflected in how Campus School is,” said board chair Shante Avant. “It’d be interesting for me to learn from your committee what your plan is for that. Because if you don’t currently have a student body that is reflective of what you’re saying you want the school to be, how would you get there?”

“Campus Elementary was much more diverse when I was there in the 70s and 80s than it is now,” added school board member Michelle Robinson McKissack. “Be intentional. At that time, that first wave post-integration, they were intentionally trying to make sure they would do that.”

The university announced in March it would explore opening a middle school to build off the successes of Campus School, which often ranks among Memphis’ highest-performing on state tests. The school would be housed in the former St. Anne Catholic School near Highland Street and Spottswood Avenue.

So far, the university plans for a third of students to be children of faculty and staff, a third would come from the neighborhoods in a two-mile radius from the East Memphis school, and a third come be from the rest of the county.

The proposed middle school would give priority to students living in a two-mile radius of the campus and use the university’s existing bus service shown by the blue line. Source: University of Memphis

Until recently, Campus School was the only school with a contract in Shelby County Compared to charter schools, contract schools have more say in how they choose students. That allows University of Memphis to give priority to children of faculty and staff. But federal law prohibits explicit race quotas for student enrollment.


Related: Memphis’ only program for adults to get high school diploma gets lifeline from district leaders


Still, other schools, like the recently opened charter school Crosstown High, have attracted applicants who vary in academic standing, race, and class through community outreach campaigns.

Although Campus School is also open to university service staff who don’t make as much money as faculty, Debes said there’s room to grow in advertising the opportunity to them.

“And that’s one of the things we will work to try to disseminate information about the school — not just to the community and the county but the university faculty and staff,” he said.

“I hope that you will be very targeted in making those families aware that this is out there as an option for them,” McKissack said.

To attend the proposed middle school, students would have to meet three requirements:

  • Satisfactory behavior
  • Fewer than 15 unexcused absences, tardies, or early dismissals
  • On or above grade level scores on the state’s TNReady test or MAPS, a national test on student growth.

Some school board members took issue with some of the admission requirements, saying they are too narrow to attract the diverse student body they are seeking. Debes said that’s why the school would accept teacher recommendations to explain why a student doesn’t meet one of the requirements.

“We recognize that there are lots of brilliant children out there who are looking like they’re falling below grade level precisely because their learning styles are different,” he said. “We have to make sure the parents and families understand that just because you don’t meet those three criteria on official record, doesn’t mean there’s not a chance for your kid to get into that school.”

“I don’t know if a teacher is going to give a letter for a child who has (a poor grade) in conduct,” said board member Stephanie Love.

Debes said the university would look to Shelby County Schools for advice on reaching out to families in the area. But he also doesn’t want nearby schools — such as the sought-after Maxine Smith STEAM Academy — to think the university is poaching their smartest students.

Other details about the makeup of the school include a “project-based learning” curriculum focused on science, technology, engineering, and math where students take fewer tests and do more group work based on solving real-world problems. Funding for the school would be based on Shelby County Schools’ “student-based budgeting” model that is based on student need rather than a fixed amount for every student.

A contract is expected to be discussed during the board’s Nov. 27 work session, with a vote scheduled for Dec. 4.

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”